DorobekInsider: The era of social media is over – long live collaboration tools

Monday - 9/28/2009, 1:17pm EDT

There is a growing mini-debate going on among the gov 2.0 community: Is it “social media” or is it… something else. There are options, but… first off, why should be the term “social media” be verboten.

The term “social media” is all over the place, of course. The CIO Council recently published Web 2.0 security guidance — and the title of it:  Guidelines for Secure Use of Social Media by Federal Departments and Agencies, v1.0.

There are several reasons that I, personally, not a fan of the term “social media.”

First — I don’t think it is accurate. In the end, enterprise organizations aren’t using these tools because of the socialness they provide. And I’m not really sure I would classify these tools as “media.”

But nearly as important, I think the term “social media” allows people discount the use of these tools as, essentially, glorified dating sites. In the end, the socialness of these tools is merely one element of their value. There definitely is a “social” aspect to them, but that is not the value of them — particularly for large organizations like government.

Harvard Business School Prof. Andrew McAfee, in his upcoming book Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges, he writes:

They hear “social,” in short, and think it means not work-related, or time wasting, or productivity-draining. Because of this tendency, I rarely if ever use the word social when discussing Enterprise 2.0. I prefer instead collaborative, a term that has largely positive connotations for business leaders. People collaborate in order to get work done and solve problems, and these days there’s no shortage of problems to solve.

In the end, what these tools are really about — and why I talk about them as much as I do — is that these tools provide a unique way for agencies to do something that they have long sought to do — share information… to work together… to collaborate. If these tools were just about being social, they would have been written off long ago.

But I think the debate is not just one of semantics. Words have meaning — and impact. And the term “social media,” in some ways allows people to ban these tools, which are increasingly becoming an essential part of missions. And it is remarkable how we go through these fits over new technologies. I wasn’t around, but I’m guessing we did it with the phone. I know we did it with e-mail.

In fact, if I had my druthers, they would ban e-mail — I exaggerate for effect, of course, but… we use e-mail because it is the tool that we are comfortable using. E-mail is not collaborate. It isn’t a way to share information. It isn’t transparent. And it isn’t made available for large groups. E-mail does what every management expert will tell you not to do — it puts an electronic front end on the existing process of postal mail.

I made this arguement in my June column in Signal magazine, The First Step Toward Collaboration Is to Stop E-Mailing.

In that column, I note that I remember when the General Services Administration (GSA), under then-administrator David J. Barram, was one of the first agencies to ensure that each person in the organization had e-mail — on Flag Day 1996. GSA, thankfully, still has the press release online under the headline, “GSA Employees Join Super Information Highway through Intranet.”

That release, dated June 14, 1996, quotes Barram defining what the Internet is. The “Internet is known as the global communications network and it is being called by many experts the most promising avenue for business in existence today. Through the use of Internet, companies and government agencies worldwide are finding exciting new ways to serve their customers and communicate with each other,”

E-mail revolutionized the way we communicate… and e-mail definitely has a “social” aspect to it, but… it isn’t “social media.” It is a tool that enables organizations to do their job better and more effectively.

Unfortunately, since then, we try to use e-mail as a collaboration tool. We used it as such in the 1990s, and it helped us then because we did not have other tools. But other options are available to us today.

I should also give kudos to the National Academy of Public Administration. When NAPA was creating a place where they could pull all these items together, I spoke to them about the name — I thought then, years ago now — that the name was important. Wisely, they selected the name, The Collaboration Project. It has become a remarkable place for sharing ideas across government.

So I’d be happy to hear other suggestions for replacing the term “social media” — but for right now, I’ll be using collaboration tools.